Former Smosh YouTuber Anthony Padilla wants conversations, not cringe


Four years ago, Anthony Padilla decided to try something different.

Online platforms are craggy cliffsides whose foundations can give way at any moment. YouTube is the OG in that regard: Its ever-shifting algorithmic landscape has forced creators to adapt and re-adapt. Padilla’s star first rose as part of comedy mega-channel Smosh. But in 2018, a year after leaving Smosh, he chose to shift away from videos that centered his personality and decided to get inside other people’s heads instead.

Beginning with a video titled “I spent a day with Flat Earthers,” he kicked off an “I spent a day with …” interview series that would eventually catapult his channel to nearly 7 million subscribers, gaining platform-wide ubiquity in the process.

We spoke with Padilla about his meteoric (second) rise and why he decided to turn the camera out, rather than in.

Nowadays, many on YouTube, Twitch and other platforms consider it a badge of honor to be interviewed by Padilla.

“What YouTube was rewarding, what was rising to the top was, like, telling the world every single detail about you and having them weigh in and be part of your life,” Padilla told The Washington Post. “It really wasn’t helping me to have the internet, from all these different angles, telling me what they thought, trying to push me in certain ways — trying to say, ‘Oh, but you’re naive in this area.’ … I realized that just wasn’t for me.”

“I spent a day with Flat Earthers” birthed the format, but it wouldn’t become the blueprint. When speaking with people who believed the Earth was flat, Padilla messed with them to see if they’d buy into other easily debunkable theories he’d made up on the spot.

“It kind of fell into what was trendy at the time on YouTube, which was, ‘Let’s poke fun at people. Let’s see what kind of laughs we can get because they’re saying the most outlandish things,’ ” said Padilla. “But something about it didn’t feel right to me.”

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In making other “I spent a day with” videos — including one focused on “furries,” people who dress up as anthropomorphized animals to express an idealized version of themselves — Padilla started approaching subjects on their own terms.

“When I sat down with furries,” Padilla said, “I realized there was this deep humanity in wanting to change their appearance to match how they felt and be able to represent themselves behind a costume.”

This approach, he explained, resonated with the people and groups he chose to spotlight, as well as viewers who were tired of YouTube inundating them with gimmicks and mean-spirited pranks.

“[Furries who watched the video] said, ‘People now understand me better by watching you, an outsider, go into the situation and meet these people with genuine curiosity and respect,’ ” Padilla said.

In turn, Padilla found a mission statement.

“I said, ‘If I’m going to do more of these videos, I need to lean away from things that are trendy right now on YouTube: poking fun at people, cringe reaction humor-type stuff,’” Padilla explained. “I needed to lean into what actually excited me about having conversations with people.”

Padilla didn’t invent a totally new format: Journalists have conducted interviews for years, as have television hosts and many others. But new mediums have a way of reverse-engineering old ideas. Padilla’s series came out of a particularly cynical era of YouTube’s relatively short history: Just one month before “I spent a day with Flat Earthers,” YouTube megastar Logan Paul found himself in hot water after he uploaded footage of an apparent suicide while vacationing in Japan. On a platform that encouraged and, to an extent, rewarded that level of crassness, viewers desired something that not only avoided punching down, but depicted an outsider coming in and respecting others’ humanity.

These days, Padilla interviews everyone from kidnapping survivors to popular content creators. In all cases, he tries to meet them where they’re at.

“For me my goal when I’m bringing humor into these videos is never, ‘I’m in on a secret joke, but the audience or guest isn’t part of it,’ ” Padilla said. “I want it to feel like people are watching me connecting with a friend.”

Padilla does not actually spend an entire day with all his subjects, though the amount of time that goes into videos sometimes exceeds one. Interviews often last a few hours before being edited down to a 30-minute-or-so video, but he also does plentiful prep work and offers subjects pre-calls to discuss potential lines of questioning and topics that might be off-limits. Additionally, subjects are allowed to ask to have portions stricken from the final video if they’re not comfortable with something they said. Interviewers cut from a more old-school cloth might rankle at this approach, but given the sensitivity of topics Padilla covers in his conversations, he thinks these safety nets help people open up.

“Because of that, the conversations I have with them are so much deeper,” Padilla said. “It’s surprising that the more comfortable you make people knowing that anything they don’t want to make it in they can remove, they actually want so much more of them — their vulnerability — to [stay in].”

Bringing that vulnerability out is a challenge, though, one that was at its peak when covid forced the country into lockdown. Padilla continued his series, but like the rest of us, he had to rely on video calls and wobbly internet connections.

“Some guests’ internet quality was so bad that I could hear every three or four words,” said Padilla. “There were some times when I was just like, ‘I pray that you’re saying what you said in the pre-call, because I’m just going to react as if you are.’ ”

On the upside, distance facilitated interviews with subjects who did not want to reveal their true identities out of concern for their privacy — massive names like YouTuber and musician Corpse Husband and “Minecraft” celebrity Dream, the latter of whom finally revealed his face last month but neither of whom have divulged their full names. These videos, which give a peek behind the curtain of notoriously mysterious figures, are some of Padilla’s most popular to date. But in his mind, nothing beats talking to people face to face.

“We were losing a lot of the body language, which I think is extremely important for these kinds of conversations,” said Padilla. “Now all those little details, the body language and the nuance, feels so much more impactful because I know what it’s like to do these interviews without them.”